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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Andru Okun talks about his zine No Place For a Vacation

Posted By on Tue, Nov 11, 2014 at 1:32 PM

click to enlarge Andru Okun, creator of the zine No Place For a Vacation. - JULES BENTLEY
  • JULES BENTLEY
  • Andru Okun, creator of the zine No Place For a Vacation.

The upcoming New Orleans Comics and Zine Fest (NOCAZ) is further proof that zines, a catch-all term for self-published and often small-circulation print periodicals, are just too scrappy to die. They’ve been part of the New Orleans cultural scene since long before the term was coined, though the format hit its subcultural stride nationwide in the '90s through the mid-2000s. While most of the names from our city's zine golden age have moved on to other endeavors, Hope Amico (Keep Loving, Keep Fighting) continues to create beautiful and intricate zines, and the New Orleans underground metal/punk zine Paranoize, begun in 1989, just published their 35th issue. Chainbreaker, a DIY bike repair guidebook, sells briskly in major bookstores nationwide more than a decade since it first saw print as a New Orleans zine.

Our city’s most extraordinary zine-related institution is Robb Roemershauser's Aboveground Zine Library, a collection of more than 15,000 zines from all over the world that spans six decades. It remains in limbo since being gentrified out of the space at 511 Marigny, but Roemershauser has contributed to smaller collections of zines now stocked at some branches of the New Orleans Public Library (NOPL), and over the last few months NOPL has been hosting make-your-own-comics-and-zine workshops for kids.

The latter are part of the buildup to the inaugural NOCAZ, which takes place Nov. 15 at the NOPL's Main Branch (read Kate Watson's preview). NOCAZ describes itself as "a space for self-published artists and thinkers to put their work out... and be able to reach other people without the constraints and expense of the commercial publishing industry."

There are multiple events around NOCAZ, including a zine reading Thursday night featuring several local zine creators. One of those, Andru Okun, has just published an ambitious narrative zine called No Place for a Vacation. It recounts his experiences on a tumultuous 2012 Middle East trip that began with a free "Birthright" tour of Israel designed to make the oft-criticized state appealing to young American Jews. Okun broke off and traveled on his own through Jerusalem into Palestine, where he volunteered at a refugee camp and participated in a rally against the Israeli occupation that came under attack by the Israeli army. As if that weren't enough, Okun then took a surreal sojourn into areas of post-revolution Egypt that had previously been tourist hotspots.

It's a compelling read, elevated above travelogue not only by its events but by Okun's engaging mix of thoughtfulness and humor. No Place for a Vacation's use of a personal lens to explore larger issues make it a good example of zinedom's enduring possibilities. I spoke with Okun about his zine, his upcoming readings and NOCAZ itself.

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What was the writing process of No Place for a Vacation?

I kept a journal during my trip, as a way to decompress and catalogue my thoughts about what was going on. As it accumulated, it became obvious I had enough material I could do something with it. At first I thought I'd just transcribe my journal, but I realized I still needed to put a lot of research and thought into what had occurred and what I had experienced. I needed some space between travelling and writing about it. The zine is all those things: my recorded experiences, my thoughts, and that research.

Why did you choose to publish this as a zine, instead of, say, online?

A zine is a really democratic way to put out writing; it's populist publishing. I feel like I can get more people to read it if it's in hard copy, and I think it's important for people to put things out in hard copy— because it's going to circulate among people in a different way than it would on the internet or in a digital sphere. I believe in writing and putting things out on paper. If it weren't for other people doing that, I wouldn't be writing; if it weren't for Joe Sacco's comics, which I got and read in print, I wouldn't have gone on this trip.
click to enlarge noplace1.jpg
Had you done any zines before this?

I'd made an art zine with a bunch of artists who live here, but as far as a longform narrative nonfiction zine, this was the first one. I had some models, like Nathan Tempey's Breakfast and [writer] Aaron Cometbus — super-longform narrative writing. I love those kind of writing-intensive zines... they're different from zines as objects or as art pieces.

I admired your approach to the daunting and overwhelming subject of Israeli occupation and apartheid. You provide some context and historical background, but rather than grandstanding, you just let what you experienced on the Birthright trip and in Palestine speak for itself.

I wasn't going to try and work through the entire history, to lay out the full scope of the occupation. There's so much... it's a political issue, a religious issue and a historical issue, and the way people feel about it, I felt like the best I could do is say, "These are the things that happened to me, this is what I saw, and this is how I felt about it." Because that's something no one can contest.

Many of the young Jews that were on the Birthright trip were secular — in the American sense, not the Israeli sense. They'd been born into Jewish families but were not in any way part of the Jewish faith. The majority weren't that aware of the occupation as an issue and the organizers don't talk about it on the trip, obviously... and opening up a dialogue about Palestine is part of what I wanted to do.

You were working as a waiter in New Orleans; how did living in our tourist economy affect your experiences as a tourist in post-revolutionary Egypt?

Egypt felt like a really extreme version of what a tourist economy could look like — we talk about things being bad here, the Disneyfication, but in Egypt people's dependency on tourism was at another level. There's a bartender I talk with in Luxor [in the zine] who says, "Egypt is a country full of beauty, but none of the beauty you see is attainable for the people who live here." That was inside this hotel I couldn't have afforded to stay at, let alone the people who worked there. To me, Egypt was the collapse of tourism: what it looks like when shit hits the fan, the tourism goes away, and there's nothing else there. There's no other work, so people are left with nothing but desperation.

How can people get a copy of No Place for a Vacation?

I'll be reading at Real Talk on Thursday, where there will be zines from me and the other zinesters, and then I'll be tabling at NOCAZ. Or people can just contact me, and I'll give them a zine... or they can e-mail me. I'm just super into having people read it. I want to get it to as many people as possible.

What are you most excited about at NOCAZ?

I'm excited to see all the local people who make stuff that I don't know about. The people who put NOCAZ together have been working their asses off, so it's gonna be great to see all their hard work come to fruition, and it's great that it's free and at the library. A lot of people will be giving their zines away; that's kind of a crucial element of zines to me, is to keep it in the public sphere and as accessible as possible, to make sure no one is prohibited by cost. Speaking of which, they just launched a Kickstarter...

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The Real Talk Zine Reading is Thu., Nov. 13 at 7 pm at the Mid-City Branch Library (3700 Orleans Ave.). 

NOCAZ takes place Sat., Nov. 15 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library (219 Loyola Ave.), and is free and open to the public. 

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